Shavuot: Cheesecake and the Book of Ruth close the Counting of the Omer

Cheesecake with chocolate ganache and fresh berries on top

Cheesecake is a popular dessert for Shavuot. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

SUNSET SATURDAY, MAY 23: The days of counting have ended and the Festival of Weeks has finally arrived: It’s Shavuot, the Jewish festival marking the reception of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Since the second day of Passover, devout Jews have been dutifully counting each day—with the “omer,” a unit of measure—to illustrate the important link between Passover and Shavuot. Duly, it was in the days of the Temple that Shavuot also celebrated the wheat harvest, when pilgrims would travel from far and wide to ceremoniously present the Bikkurim (first fruits) and new wheat crop in Jerusalem.

Note: Shavuot is celebrated for one day in Israel, and for two days in the Diaspora.

Our coverage of this holiday, which is little known outside the Jewish community, involves three of our writers, this week …

First, since Shavuot’s most memorable custom in Jewish homes involves food—Bobbie Lewis devotes her FeedTheSpirit column to the holiday (and includes a delicious recipe for a rustic vegetable tart with goat cheese).

Second, before regular Holidays columnist Stephanie Fenton provides some of her timely links to share with friends—we’ve asked the Jewish scholar and publisher Joe Lewis (Bobbie’s husband) to provide his perspective on Shavuot:

“There’s an old story about the Baal Shem Tov, founder of Chasidism, the mystical pietistic strain of Judaism. When the Jewish community were threatened, he would go to a secret place in the forest, light a fire, and say a special prayer—and the danger would pass. His disciples passed on what they could, but as generations came and went they could no longer find the secret place, light the special fire or remember the words of the prayer. Only the story remained, but even that was powerful enough to save the people.

Shavuot was once a harvest holiday, but in their tragic history the Jewish people were expelled from their farmland, and their agricultural holidays lost their immediate meaning. The Torah instructs us to count each day from Passover, the spring festival, to Shavuot, the early harvest. A farmer could watch seeds sprout and grow, thankful for each day of favorable weather and anxious for the next. Such meaning is a memory hard to recapture.

The meaning of many Shavuot customs has faded. Why do we mourn in the period of counting, mark Shavuot as the anniversary of the Revelation at Sinai, eat dairy foods or read the story of Ruth? We offer explanations, but they are not conclusive. The gesture remains but its meaning escapes us; we live in loss. Still, as we seek to recapture the ancient significance, we instill our customs with fresh relevance, even if we can only tell the elusive story of the vibrant past.”

SHAVUOT AT HOME

Holidays columnist Stephanie Fenton adds …

Modern observance of Shavuot includes the decoration of homes and synagogues with festive greenery. Tradition says that this floral décor stems from long-repeated accounts that Mount Sinai blossomed with flowers in anticipation of the giving of the Torah on its summit.

Row of cheese blintzes with raspberry sauce drizzled over all

Cheese blintzes with raspberry sauce. Photo by Eliza Adam, courtesy of Flickr

Several explanations are offered regarding the consumption of dairy on Shavuot—among them that King Solomon referred to the Torah as “like honey and milk”—and cheese blintzes, cheesecakes, milk and more are commonplace on the Shavuot table. (Wikipedia has details.)

According to other traditional stories, the night before the Torah was given, the Israelites went to bed early and then overslept; to mend this act, many Jews stay up all night on Shavuot to study the Torah. In Jerusalem, it has been custom since 1967 to gather at the Western Wall before dawn and join the sunrise minyan that follows the all-night Torah study.

Seven ways to start family traditions for Shavuot are shared in this article by JWeekly, but by way of cuisine, several sources dish up cheesecakes and blintzes for every taste:

  • Sweet and savory recipes—including an indulgent Rugelach Bread Pudding Cheesecake—are at My Jewish Learning.
  • Going light on dairy? Incorporate dairy with an accent of cheese instead of the whole block, with these recipe ideas from JewishVoiceNY.
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